Losing a child is an unimaginable hurt, a constantly lingering harm that disconnects the unfortunate parents that suffer that loss from everybody else. It isn’t unimaginable that it could happen, more that we cannot perceive the pain as being ever present and debilitating, something for which moving on is just something people push you to do, not something you can. Pieces of A Woman, directed by Kornél Mundruczó and written by Kata Wéber, based off their stage play of the same name, is the story of a woman’s grief following a home birth that goes tragically wrong and the distance it causes between her and others left on the outside watching, unable to help or comprehend this woman’s sense of grief. Thematically rich and deeply chilling in how it handles the taboos we too often avoid either because of apathy or fear, Mundruczó expands upon the stage trappings while never overpowering his performers with unneeded melodrama.
Opening in the hours before happy couple Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean’s (Shia LaBeouf) tragic home birth experience, something drawn out in a almost 25 minute single take that jumps through every emotion imaginable as both feel the joy and trepidation of a moment nine months in the making. Benjamin Loeb’s intimately close up design of this family moment with lingering sequences of Kirby’s constantly shifting facial expressions that somehow connects you not just to the feelings within this singular experience but also the unpleasant minutiae of childbirth. It is a performance worthy of the inevitable Oscar nomination it deserves but the direction here is all too often weightless, constantly invasive yet never in the way, consistently pushing these performers for an authenticity that would be lacking without it. Mundruczó knows where his tale is headed but the nervous energy that overpowers this tour de force opening establishes this drama of before and after perfectly, so well that what follows struggles to live up to it. Thankfully it never intends to.
Wéber’s script almost begins anew when the films titles finally appear 30 minutes into the feature, brazenly reminding the audience this isn’t the end of a trauma but the beginning before cutting almost a month into Martha’s grief, effectively forcing both viewers and her past the shock into the lingering insidious hurt. It’s deft writing that allows Mundruczó to drain the warmth out of his picture almost instantly, instead replaced by cold hard distance. The fast approaching winter in the film doubling as the approaching familial storm encroaching on Martha and Sean’s stable unit. Wéber lays the groundwork early on for the films major moments while layering self perceived judgements in along the way in sequences of mundanity while playing them off as two people and a film languishing in hurt. Be it Martha being seen as a bad mother by other parents, her friends or co-workers for the choice to not go to the hospital or her midwife Ava (Molly Parker) being labelled as unfit based off a seemingly solitary mistake (if it can even be called that). The problem with that is almost an hour of Pieces of a Woman places you within this slow, festering darkness and despite some tonally impressive storytelling and a jazz infused melancholy score by Howard Shore its hard to maintain a connection to Martha’s plight.
Although a showcase for Kirby, LaBeouf and scene stealer Ellen Burstyn as Martha’s mentally deteriorating but proud mother Elizabeth, Wéber’s dialogue, especially in monologues designed for the stage, feels like an overselling of a story that works better internalising. In the end there is more power in one line than in twenty. The discussions Sean and Martha have about reconnecting seem less productive than the visual of Sean’s failed, aggressive attempts at recovering his prior relationship. These visuals and the way it quietly denotes distance by standing in stark contrast to the films intentionally close opening does more than the well structured script achieves.
Pieces of a Woman is intentionally confusing and disjointed, a bleak mystery to be contemplated but never solved. Vibrant in its often mesmeric cinematography and its use of seasons to convey emotion, Mundruczó uses his theatre roots to paint a community of voices into one compelling narrative and while there are a few moments that it loses its way, it feeling fitting in a film all about a woman finding her way back to a new normal after a devastating loss. Although a film closing sequence runs the risk of being a step too far, a Hollywood ending in a film not searching for one, Pieces of a Woman is a flawed but fascinating character study that plays on modern prejudices regarding an all too often ignored subject in a profound way and its listless feeling is important despite causing some unintended pacing issues here and there.